Belize, Thanksgiving Week 2016, Part I

It may take me three posts to get through the Belize travelogue! We had a wonderful time.

FYI, there are lots of informational links in this series of posts about our vacation to Belize. If you want to read more about something, go ahead and click a link in blue text without worrying that you’ll be directed to a site that wants your money. 🙂

Friday, Nov. 18 – Doing the hurry-scurry gotta-pack-gotta-go dance, making sure we have dog care covered and vehicle ready to make the 4-hour drive to The CEO’s sister’s house near Dulles. I kinda hate this part of a trip. Did I unplug everything, did we turn the heat down, did we get the trash out, did I leave something I will need? Ugh.

Bookworm keeps calling to tell us that she’s stuck in Friday-evening traffic in and around NYC. Poor baby, she really hates traffic, and she’s already tired. She doesn’t get in until after 11 pm.

Saturday, Nov. 19 – Up at 4 am to make a 6:30 flight, double ugh. Security is pretty fast at this time of day, and there are no issues with the first leg of our flight. It’s cold and windy in Chicago (duh!), but we manage to grab some breakfast and make our next flight, direct to Belize City.

belize-airport-signIt’s warm here. Sort of tropical, but not in the same carefree island way that Hawai’i is tropical. The car rental guys, Ashton and Fitzgerald, are super nice. They give us “Big Red,” a good-sized SUV, help us load our suitcases, and even draw us a map for the Red Hut Inn. It starts to rain, and we manage to get sorta lost on the short 15-minute drive — not because the directions are bad, but because there are no street signs, I mean absolutely zero signs, and also because I am distracted by all the houses and buildings that would probably be condemned as unhabitable here in the US. A road crew is working on the main road from the airport to downtown Belize City, and it’s kind of scary: potholes, narrow places, no shoulder, river on one side, plus people in orange vests with shovels of gravel. The speed limit on this highway is 40 mph, but we get passed by six vehicles, all going well over 40. I don’t know how.

I’m thinking maybe this was not the best idea we ever had, especially when we hit yet another pothole on the street that should be where our guest house is. At least everybody speaks English, I remind myself.

red-hut-innWhen we find the guest house (it’s a Thanksgiving miracle! no sign out front), it’s in a residential neighborhood on a street that goes almost down to the water. The hosts are welcoming, and our rooms are nice. They’re on the third floor; The CEO and I are in a small double-bed room, and the kids are in a room at the other end of the balcony, with a twin bed and a bunk-bed. We’re dying from the humidity until we turn on the AC. (Thank you, Lord for AC.) It happens to be a holiday here, and there are few businesses open. We know we’ll need groceries for lunch tomorrow, so we go to the Asian grocery the hosts recommend and pick up some staples. Then a lovely grilled-chicken dinner cooked by Louis, and then, oh yes, bedtime.

Sunday, Nov. 20 – Adventure time! Our host told us last night that we could certainly manage a three-item tour today, and because The CEO loves a challenge, we’re going for it: Mayan ruins site Altun Ha, the baboon sanctuary, and the Belize Zoo.

We eat peanut butter sandwiches and raisins for breakfast and drink juice boxes. We’ve been advised that the water is safe to drink here, but because Bookworm is very concerned (“I cannot get sick. There are only three weeks of class left and I have a substantial research paper to finish and FroCo duties and my chem research lab stuff and then there are exams and I. CANNOT. GET. SICK.“), we have planned to drink bottled liquids.

We drive north on the same  highway we traveled yesterday; past the airport turnoff construction ceases and the road is pretty decent. We’re in the parking lot for Altun Ha about 45 minutes after leaving Belize City, and we are sunscreening and bug-spraying ourselves for all we’re worth, when a man walks up to us and asks if we would like a tour of the ruins. “How much?” we ask.

“Special price,” he tells us. “$5 American for each of you. At least an hour tour, and I’ve been through the training as a tour guide. You can ask me anything.” His name is Frederick, and although his tour doubles the cost of the entrance fee, it turns out to be absolutely worth it. He outlines the history of the city, explains the general layout and the reason why some of the temples are left unexcavated (they are mostly constructed of limestone, and since limestone is porous, removing the tree roots that have grown into the buildings over time would cause the structures to crumble), as well as giving us a thorough overview of the site and Mayan history in general. He answers all our questions, which are many and vary from, “So why are some of the temple steps white and some of them natural stone?” to “So they think this area off to the right was, what, the priest’s house?”

Altun Ha plaza. Photo by The CEO.
Altun Ha plaza. Photo by The CEO.

Altun Ha is a relatively small site, one of the later trading posts of the Mayans, and has several excavated/partially-restored temples as well as two central plazas. One of the most exciting finds from the excavation here was the tomb of an elderly man, either royalty or high-ranking priest, who was buried with exquisite pottery and heavy jade and shell jewelry. Resting near his right hand was a carved piece of jade depicting the head of the sun god Kinich Ahau. This jade head weighed nearly ten pounds and is the single largest piece of Mayan carved jade ever found. It now rests in the Central Bank in Belize City, and a picture of it is on all Belizean currency.

Frederick explains to us that Belize’s population is about a third Mestizo (people of Spanish and Maya descent), about a third Kriol (people of African and English/Scottish descent), about 10% Maya, about 6% Garifuna (people of African and Amerindian descent), and the remaining 12-14% people from elsewhere in the world. A fair number of these are Chinese, he says, which would explain the Chinese grocery we saw.

On the way out, we stop by the souvenir stall that Frederick and his girlfriend keep. They’re selling beautifully made and polished wooden items – bowls, and decorative items like the toucan. We buy The CEO’s sister a gorgeous bowl and a natural wood toucan for ourselves.

Then, with Bookworm reading the map we got at the airport (maps: not ma thang), we find the road going to the baboon sanctuary. Which is not, I discover, for baboons, but for native howler monkeys.

This cracks me up, and you’d have to know my dad to understand, but any time my brother, sister, or I were crying and he was trying to jolly us out of it, he’d call us howler monkeys. He kept that up with his grandchildren, so that when I hear “howler monkey,” I can hear my dad’s voice saying it in my head. It’s an eye roll, but a sweet one.

We find a place advertising itself like this: “Your exciting eco-tour starts here!” We pull in. There are restrooms and a picnic table, plus a small building that looks like a restaurant — or, let’s be honest here, a beer place that serves food, like most of the rest of the places we’ve seen on the side of the road here. But nobody’s around, except a mother dog so tired she just flicks an ear at us and goes back to sleep. We eat lunch (more PB&J sandwiches, more juice boxes), reapply bug spray, and head down the trail.

Howler monkey
Howler monkey

There are monkeys right there. Before we’ve gone three minutes’ walk, there are two males, a female, and a baby in the trees overhead, and we carefully step across a long line of large ants carrying pieces of leaf. The male howlers are making their weirdly loud booming noises (clearly we are threats), and The CEO gets several good pictures. Insects are flying around, and this is making Bookworm nervous, and we’re all hot, so we decide that the car’s AC sounds good, and we don’t want to miss the zoo hours, so we leave.

Bookworm navigates us back to Belize City down a different road, and we hit the Belize Zoo parking lot with plenty of time to see everything. The zoo tries to replicate natural habitats as much as possible for its animals, which are all native species and are all either rescued, orphaned, zoo-born or rehabilitated (i.e., nobody went out and captured animals in the wild to display here). Taz is excited about the tapir (“mountain cow” in Belize), and Gaze likes the colorful birds. But it’s a big thrill for us to run across an enclosure for two pumas, AKA cougars, AKA mountain lions, AKA panthers. Puma concolor is long gone from eastern North America, but it once lived here in the mountains of southwest Virginia, and of course our high school mascot is the cougar. (Although the last authenticated report of a cougar in our state was in 1884 in Washington County, my grandfather, born in 1912 in neighboring Lee Co., swore that he’d heard a cougar — a “painter” in local parlance — in the woods as a child. “Sounded just like a woman screaming,” he said.) A zoo employee happens to be standing by with a covered pail, and the larger puma stops near the enclosure fence to watch him. He keeps showing the puma something in the bucket, and the puma makes a sound very like a cat’s meow.

Cougar, intent on the treat in the keeper's bucket. Believe it or not, this photo was not zoomed and cropped; he really was that close! Pic by The CEO.
Cougar, intent on the treat in the keeper’s bucket. Pic by The CEO.

I suppose that the keeper is intentionally keeping the animal near the fence for our benefit, and Bookworm tells me that these cats are more like house cats genetically and behaviorally than they are like big cats such as lions or tigers. The smaller puma sneaks up and playfully pounces on the larger one, and there’s a yowl and a pursuit through the vegetation that would look very familiar to anyone who’s ever owned cats.

By the time we’ve made it back to the zoo entrance and someone suggests checking out the reptile cages, I am about done. I have bug bites despite the bug spray, and I’m desperately thirsty, and you can keep the snakes, thank you, even if they’re behind glass.

Louis makes us dinner again, snapper with a delicious savory sauce. Yum. We mention to him that we’re thinking of visiting the Cultural and History Museum, and he snorts. “It’s crap. There’s nothing to see there, don’t waste your time.” Bedtime is very welcome.

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7 thoughts on “Belize, Thanksgiving Week 2016, Part I”

  1. WOW, Mals! This is an amazing adventure. You captured the uncomfortableness of travel well here, along with grand vistas and historic sites. It sounds like fun. I look forward to your next installment.
    –HemlockSillage

  2. Will someone please tell me why the Cross Bronx Expressway is called an expressway when it takes forever and a day to get across the Bronx using it?

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